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Dealing with Difficult Coworkers

February 20, 2015

Product Leadership

The product team – at the heart of business, technology and customers – interacts with many different people in many different teams. So if you’re in product you might find yourself in either the best position of the business, or one of the most challenging. It all comes down to company culture and daily politics – and difficult coworkers can make it very hard to get the job done.

If you’re struggling with a sour working relationship, here are a few tips to help you cope and even turn enemies to allies.

The Pushy Sales Manager

Your sales team works incredibly hard to sell your solution on the front line. But that tenacity often makes its way into internal politics. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – your sales people are your customers’ champions too – but sometimes we come across an extraordinarily pushy salesperson.

This difficult co-worker is relentless in their insistence for the features their latest target needs to close a sale and will either resort to aggressive communication or work around you to get it. You may find an incredibly creative version of your roadmap shared with prospects or concrete promises for developments you’ve never agreed to.

So what do you do?

Putting up like-for-like resistance to these colleagues can often make it worse. This kind of negotiation is what they do for a living, and they will probably beat you. Instead, work to get this sales person on your side.

This means involving them early in roadmapping, and making them equal participants in your planned course of action. Be open to sales input and listen to what is important for new revenue, but control when this influence is exerted. Often, just one supporter at a senior level on the sales team will get you far – and you can refer others to them should further disputes arise.

The Obstructive CTO

On the other side of the coin is the obstructive CTO. A CTO and a Product Manager have a very close working relationship, but not always the clearest one. The line between roadmap resourcing and development planning can become a little blurred. Relationships can turn sour when you find yourself working with a CTO who feels product management is stepping on their toes, and is – as a result – obstructive of your attempts to deliver new products.

This obstructive CTO might pull out the technical card to undermine your projects or even understanding of the development undertaking. Or they might mismanage resources in line with their own sense of priority. Whereas the commercial team might push for features based on their immediate sellability, a certain type of CTO might do quite the opposite and fixate on the technical ease of different approaches above the product vision.

So what do you do?

Don’t forget that the CTO’s input into different approaches is valid, and can help you make pragmatic calls. But should you find that this crosses the line from input to overriding important product decisions, you need to address the issue face on. Speak frankly with your CTO about the best ways for you to work together and ask for input on how you can best work with to his team’s rhythms too.

Help your CTO to understand that they too will better be able to meet targets and responsibilities if you work in tandem, and that you share his goals. If you really can’t see eye to eye you may have to have a conversation with senior management about defining boundaries and responsibilities. This discord could well be the product of a lack of clarity from higher up.

Playing our part

Despite these possible bumps in the road with difficult coworkers, product people need to understand that it’s a major part of their job to navigate the needs of colleagues in various different teams. As well as developing techniques to cope with office politics, it’s equally important not to mistake partisan interests for being obstructive. An oversensitive product manager is equally culpable among this mix of tricky characters.

And remember, being the owner of a product means you’re responsible for its successful delivery, not that you always know best. Strive always to defuse working relationships and see them for the mutually beneficial partnerships that they are.

Tell us: Have you ever had a tricky co-worker? What role were they, and how did you learn to cope? Let us know in the comments!

Janna Bastow is co-founder of ProdPad, software that helps product managers plan and deliver better products. Janna also organizes ProductTank events around the world, including Mind The Product, a global community of product managers. She likes to inspire great product conversations by asking: “What problem are you trying to solve?”

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Liz Love Recent comment authors
Liz Love
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I’ve found that understanding personality profiles can be a big help here. By understanding how my colleagues perceive me, and how can misunderstand them, I have been able to modify my behaviour to improve interaction with colleagues. It doesn’t always work, but more often than not it can smooth the way to a better working relationship. What’s even better is when EVERYONE I work with has an understanding of this type of thing, and moderates their own behaviour too – then we’re all working towards the same goal with the same sensitivity to each other’s needs – the holy grail!

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